Airstrike on MSF-backed Aleppo hospital kills patients and doctors
A Syrian hospital backed by Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been destroyed in an airstrike in Aleppo, killing patients and doctors including one of the last paediatricians remaining in the rebel-held part of the city.
MSF said the al-Quds hospital was targeted in an airstrike on Wednesday that killed 14 patients and staff members including at least two doctors, with the toll expected to rise.
The latest attack is part of a broader pattern of systematic targeting of hospitals by the government of Bashar al-Assad, as the humanitarian situation in the divided commercial capital of Syria grows more desperate under intense combat.
“MSF categorically condemns this outrageous targeting of yet another medical facility in Syria,” said Muskilda Zancada, MSF’s head of mission in Syria. “This devastating attack has destroyed a vital hospital in Aleppo, and the main referral centre for paediatric care in the area. Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?”
Marianne Gasser, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Syria mission, said in a statement: “The recent attack on the ICRC-supported Quds hospital is unacceptable and sadly this is not the first time the lifesaving medical services have been hit.
We urge all the parties to spare the civilians. Don’t attack hospitals, don’t use weapons that cause widespread damage. Otherwise, Aleppo will be pushed further to the brink of humanitarian disaster.”
Neither the ICRC nor MSF assigned blame for the attack, but the Syrian and Russian air forces have carried out almost all the aerial strikes on the opposition-controlled east of the city. The ICRC said the intense battles raging in Aleppo could put millions at grave risk of a humanitarian catastrophe. Fresh airstrikes on Thursday on the rebel-held part of the city killed 20 people and brought down at least one residential building, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The UK-based monitor said shelling by insurgents on government-held areas killed at least 14.
It’s like an apocalypse,” said Bara Abu Saleh, a city councillor in rebel-held Aleppo, speaking on Skype as explosions were heard in the background. “Today around 25 people have been killed in different areas. Just now a rocket landed close but it didn’t explode.”
Large-scale fighting erupted in and around Aleppo over the weekend, upending a fragile truce that had held for nearly two months as peace talks to end the five-year conflict got under way in Geneva. These negotiations are now deadlocked as the Assad regime refuses to discuss the possibility of a transitional government, and the truce appears to have all but collapsed, with over 100 dead in Aleppo province in the latest round of fighting. “The catastrophic deterioration in Aleppo over the last 24-48 hours” has jeopardised the aid lifeline that delivers supplies to millions of Syrians, said Jan Egeland, chairman of the UN humanitarian taskforce. “I could not in any way express how high the stakes are for the next hours and days.”
Abu Saleh said there were food shortages in the city, with truckers struggling to deliver 4,000 tonnes of wheat because Kurdish forces were firing on vehicles on the only road that connected the city to other rebel-held areas. While civilians are using rooftops and gardens to grow vegetables inside the city, a lack of fuel makes it hard to supply these improvised “farms” with water.
After a period of relative normality, many residents had hidden themselves away again since the bombing restarted, Abu Saleh said. But various shops were still open, and some residents were trying to carry on as normal. “People are determined to live their lives,” said Abu Saleh. “The people who are in Aleppo now are people who decided to stay here. We used to look at people in Gaza and wonder how they live their lives normally – but now we know.”
The Syrian government considers any medical facilities in opposition-held territory as legitimate military targets, saying that they are de facto illegal. Hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria are refusing to share GPS coordinateswith Russian and Syrian authorities because of repeated attacks on medical facilities and workers, fearing that sharing the locations would make the hospitals targets. As early as 2013, the UN independent commission of inquiry investigating alleged war crimes in Syria said attacks on medical facilities were being used systematically as a weapon of war by the Assad regime. Attacks by both sides on medical facilities have continued unabated in recent months. MSF said in February that a total of 94 airstrikes and shelling attacks hit facilities supported by the organisation in 2015 alone.
In February last year, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights said it had documented 224 attacks on 175 health facilities since the start of the conflict, and 599 medical personnel had been killed. The attacks continued after the Russian intervention – the organisation documented at least 10 attacks by Russian aircraft on medical facilities in October alone, the first month of Russia’s aerial campaign.
The attack came shortly after the two-month ceasefire agreed in February with US and Russian support was on Wednesday described by the UN as “barely alive”. Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy, said that in the past 48 hours there had been an average of one Syrian civilian killed every 25 minutes, and one wounded every 13 minutes. He urged the leaders of the US and Russia to revitalise the damaged peace process as he briefed the security council on the collapse of the latest talks in Geneva. He said: “The legacy of both President Obama and President Putin is linked to the success of what has been a unique initiative which started very well. It needs to end very well.” The Geneva talks are deadlocked over the key question of Assad’s future. The opposition insists he must step down, while the government in Damascus says his role is not up for negotiation. The war, now in its sixth year, is estimated to have killed 400,000 people and has made millions homeless.
Russia announced on Wednesday that the Geneva proximity talks would resume on 10 May, though UN sources said no date had been set, amid growing uncertainty as to whether they would be reconvened at all. De Mistura presided over a two-week round of talks interrupted by a walkout by the Syrian rebels just days after it began.
De Mistura still aims to convene a ministerial meeting of major and regional powers under the International Syria Support Group, before the next round is held. Riyad Hijab, head of the Syrian opposition high negotiations committee, also called for a meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People group – which has called for Assad to go and crucially excludes Russia and Iran, the Syrian president’s close allies. Amid concern about the humanitarian situation in Syria, British, French, German and Dutch MPs on Thursday urged their governments to carry out airdrops of food and medicine to relieve starving civilians trapped in areas that are besieged by Syrian government forces.
In a letter to the Guardian, MPs and MEPs from across the European political spectrum write: “Our countries, the UK, France, Netherlands and Germany, are all flying in Syrian airspace as part of the anti-Isis effort. If the UN lacks the ability to deliver aid, we have the capacity and presence to act. And high-altitude airdrops would keep our brave pilots safe. Airdropping aid is only ever a last resort, but there are dependable partners on the ground in these besieged areas ready to coordinate the distribution of aid.”